“Math textbooks have the highest content load per sentence of all the secondary textbooks” (Barton and Heidema, 2002; Daniels and Zemelman, 2014, pp. 189). It is no wonder that students are struggling, textbooks present complicated reading beyond the level of understanding for most students. One of the major challenges with mathematics is being able to determine what is important and what is not important as well as being able to visualize the concepts more concretely. Steve Zemelman (2014, pp. 277) discusses an encounter with a student who is struggling to understand the dense description of a falcon preying on rabbits as it relates to physics. Zemelman provides help to the students by having students turn the words into mental pictures, ultimately decoding the situation. In many cases, students struggle further by failing to accept help from a teacher due to a poor teacher-student relationship. In return, students often feel that it is acceptable to give up, not even making an effort to find a solution.
Building relationships with students is one of the main reasons I wanted to become a teacher. The impact a teacher can make on a student’s life is enormous. Motivating students to be ambitious and work to resolve problems is not only a skill for success in school but also in the work place and as a contributing member of society. Students can learn this by having a community-oriented classroom. Teachers should 1) create a trusting atmosphere where it is safe to take risks, 2) organize learning so students can help one another, 3) provide students opportunities to take on classroom responsibility, 4) facilitate connections between class and student life, and 5) use engaging content to help student fall in love with the subject (Daniels and Zemelman, 2014, pp 205-206). Further, with a community-based classroom, students are interdependent encouraging each other to accomplish common goals.
Returning to individual reading strategies of dense texts, I think the modeling strategy of Think-Alouds during direct instruction helps students sift through complicated material. Since math and science curriculum is tested on a one size fits all, it is challenging to amend the text specifically to student needs. More important, however, is to help students think critically through challenging texts and word problems. Even with a B.S. in Mathematics, I often struggle to grasp the concept of a high school word problem when I first read it. I take myself through a checklist of what is needed and what can be discarded and document everything I need. By demonstrating this to students, they can acquire the same skills I have developed over the years. The challenge with displaying knowledge in math is that students are required to have good understanding of the topic, before they can articulate a solution. If a student knows what is happening and how to reach a solution, they can then comprehend all of the important parts of a problem.
By building relationships with students, teachers can help provide skills for general problem solving and decoding text. Another strategy teachers can use to present material is by providing an article and then posing very general questions regarding the situation. By taking a literary approach, students can integrate their outside knowledge and problem solve before the math is presented. In an eighth grade class in Chicago class, Jacqueline Sanders presents students a simple question with a complicated answer, “Where does the money from your job go?” (Daniels and Zemelman, 2014, pp. 262) Students were forced to read though several articles, websites and tax code books to use math in determining where the money from a job goes. Students could choose the level of difficulty of their sources, but ultimately they used math and reading skills to sort through both important and trivial facts to answer their question. By removing the textbook, Ms. Sanders was able to provide a different type of math instruction.
In all, students need assistance in decoding meaningful reading. The reading does not need to be from a textbook either. Students should have applicable outlets to display their learning and reading. Finally, by modeling the thought process when reading through high content reading passages, students can learn to decode and comprehend what they are reading in order to apply it to the content area.
Barton, M. L., & Heidema, C. (2002). Teaching reading in mathematics: A supplement (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Daniels, H., & Zemelman, S. (2014). Subjects matter: Exceeding Standards Through Powerful Content-Area Reading (Second ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.